This debate is still happening?
If you’re not familiar, the debate is between highbrow academic types who like to pick out canonical works of realism and call it “literary,” of having intellectual merit, and condemning “genre” work, that of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi as being for the masses, moneymakers whose only purpose is to entertain and is so the work of the lesser folks. Which of course is bullshit, always has been, with many “genre” works defined in the canon as literary (see, Dracula, Frankenstein, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, and more), and many modern “genre” works serving deep, powerful, intellectual value.
It’s a popular argument amongst we college undergrad types who fell in love with the work through such genres and are now met with academic professor types who belittle the works.
Neil Gaiman tweeted today, pointing me toward an Atlantic article on just this distinction.
In this article a highbrow type expresses his surprise at the success of genre and pats us on the head as intellectuals finally branch into these, apparently once hollow genres waiting for fulfillment by the edumacated.
How Zombies and Superheroes conquered highbrow fiction… they’ve always been there.
In the article Benjamin Percy says that of “the best literary fiction, you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors.”
I believer what we have here is a failure of labels.
Wait, labels failing, I’m so surprised.
Literary fiction is not a genre, it’s a way a text functions; in the best of ANY fiction, you see three-dimensional characters, exquisite sentences, glowing metaphors, and should I go so far as to add, a kind of deep running cultural or philosophical commentary that speaks towards the times and the human race, and our existence as a whole.
Literary fiction is then a success, to which any genre can hold.
We fell into a rut of the eighties and nineties where, at least according the article’s author Joe Fassler, realism hit its stride, echoing Hemingway in the likes of Foster Wallace, and the genre, enjoying it’s literary success, became synonymous with its poor label. It’s not.
The best horror novel can be literary. The best sci-fi novel can be literary. And it’s damn presumptuous to say that “literary novels” can still be literary even if they suck.
I propose a redefining of terms, or even better, to throw these labels out entirely. After all, culturally, there is no literary genre, and never has. You walk into a Barnes and Noble and there is no “literature” section. Wallace is found in fiction. A couple aisles down from King. And both are most excellent.